Less than 10 times a year, David Holmgren (co-originator of the permaculture concept) and his partner Su Dennett open ‘Melliodora’ – their family property and permaculture demonstration site – to the public for personally guided tours. I was lucky enough to visit in March this year along with around 40 others keen to learn from one of the most respected leaders in Permaculture today.
David generously shared his knowledge as he led us around the property, explaining design features, and candidly discussing successes and failures. I loved his humorous anecdotes and slightly anarchic philosophy and was so absorbed that the time just flew by. Three hours is not enough to understand the design fully but I left with my head swimming with information and excitement. Fortunately, we were given a CD containing David’s 2005 excellent e-book about Meliodora to take home with us and I find myself referring to it again and again.
I will know attempt to distil the experience into a few paragraphs!
Melliodora site statistics
Melliodora is built on a 1 hectare site in the village of Hepburn, an hour north west of Melbourne. The altitude (500m above sea level) and inland location results in a cool climate with heavy frosts and a reasonably short summer growing season. Around 800 mm of rain falls annually, mainly in winter. Like much of Victoria, bushfire risk is high, particularly in the warm, dry months of late summer.
I was particularly interested to learn as much as I could about the property as I am considering relocating to central Victoria and the climate is very different from the sub-tropics where I currently live and garden.
Passive solar mudbrick and timber house
David and Su’s mudbrick and timber home is somewhat famous in sustainable building circles and rightly so. The design utilises solar orientation and thermal mass to moderate the internal temperature for year round comfort and is extremely energy efficient (and beautiful). Solar energy and firewood provide for the majority of the home’s energy needs.
My favourite features:
The cool cupboard – for storage of fruit, vegetables, eggs, cheese and flour. A vent at the bottom of the cupboard draws cool air in from under the floor into the insulated cupboard and a roof vent releases warm air. Wire baskets allow the air to flow through. This design feature means that only a small refrigerator is required, saving considerable energy.
Grape arbor on north (sunny side) of the house provides cool green shade and fruit in summer and allows sunshine through in winter. The installation of a clear panel over the top of the arbor provides additional protection from northerly winter rain and also minimises theft of fruit by birds.
The greenhouse attached to the northern side of the house extends the growing season while also providing solar warmth to the home in winter. This heating effect is controlled in summer through vents and growing plants on a trellis (eg. beans) to provide shade.
Melliodora vegetable garden
There is a classic ‘zone 1’ veg patch right outside the kitchen, the raised beds built from recycled timber or stone excavated from the site during construction. In late summer, we saw abundant sweetcorn, butternut squash, tomatoes, herbs, and so much more thriving in their sunny warm spot. Comfrey self seeds at the edges of the paths in the shade of the stone walls.
While David agreed that there is no such thing as a ‘weed’ (just a plant in the wrong place), he was also quick to state that ‘weeding’ is vital in the veg patch. He does not subscribe to the myth of ‘do nothing permaculture’!
The orchard and the cockatoos
No food forests here – cool climate species need more light and less competition than their tropical cousins. Instead, the design is based on a European mixed orchard. Fruit and nut trees are intercropped with tagasaste (tree lucerne) a small evergreen tree that has nitrogen fixing capabilities, provides good quality goat fodder, mulch and firewood and has the additional benefit of being a fire retardant species.
Food producing species include: apples, pears, peaches, plums, olives, figs, feijoa, walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts. Chickens and geese are integrated into the orchard and goats are kept contained with electric fencing.
Birds represent the biggest threat to crops and a local population of cockatoos have become a serious pest. Bird netting protects some trees but losses are inevitable.
David points out that while broad-acre farmers have permission to control cockatoos, elsewhere they are a protected species. He fantasises of a future where boys with slingshots will be gainfully employed to control the birds – apparently walnut-fattened cockatoo is quite delicious!
Water supply is secured from 3 sources providing resilience during drought. The property has 2 dams to capture overland runoff, high quality town water connected to the house along with roof rainwater capture. The dam water is pumped to header tanks at the top of the property to irrigate gardens and to provide a fire fighting water supply if needed.
Bush Fire Protection
Bushfire is a major risk in rural Victoria. This is due to the warm dry summers combined with the dominance of eucalypt tree species that burn fast and hot. Melliodora is carefully designed to reduce the risk using the following strategies:
- Removal of eucalypt species from property and adjoining public land
- Planting of fire retardant species (such as blackwood, willow, oak) in their place
- Timing grass slashing for early summer to reduce fuel load
- Careful sealing of house (especially under the roof) to prohibit the entry of flying embers that are the main risk to houses in bushfires
- No large combustible trees near the house
- Water misting irrigation pipes installed on perimeter of wooden outbuildings
- Water storage tanks on high point of property with good pumps
Melliodora is a model permaculture property showcasing how much of our needs can be obtained through good design and careful land use, particularly on smaller and urban properties.
The property provides plenty of firewood, water and energy. The family hasn’t bought vegetables in more than 20 years and while they never intended to be self sufficient, a large percentage of their food is provided on the property. The family make use of fermentation and preserving techniques and enjoy a largely vegetarian diet supplemented with locally hunted wild game.
David and his partner Su Dennett have enjoyed a rewarding life at Meliodora for more than 25 years. They are an inspiration for those seeking good health, a slower paced lifestyle and a growing knowledge of – and connection to – our land, the seasons and the natural world.
Melliodora – A case study in cool climate permaculture (ebook) – http://holmgren.com.au/product/melliodora/
Book a tour! Sustainable house and garden farm guided tours at Meliodora – http://holmgren.com.au/melliodora/tours/